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Translating the NBA’s Mythic Greats

How would great NBA players in the past perform today? And how would some of the Wizards’ current players perform if they played back in the 1960s?

76ers V Bulls
Wilt Chamberlain
Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

We interrupt our regularly scheduled statistical doppelgänger series to dig into the archives using another of my stat toys — the Era Translator. The recent articles about Basketball-Reference’s All-Time Wizards/Bullets, the Rushmore conversation, and the new Showtime documentary about Wilt Chamberlain has me thinking about the mythic players of yesteryear and my various efforts through the years to introduce a reasonable approach to comparing eras.

A few thoughts before I delve into the translations. Most of the conversations we have comparing modern players and players from previous eras degenerate quickly into some variation of time travel theory. To me, this sort of discussion is of limited interest because most of it is just made up.

For example, if we picked up Bob Cousy from the 1950s and 60s and dropped him in 2023, he probably doesn’t make the NBA. He smoked cigarettes, had an iffy left hand, and shot 37.5% from the floor for his career.

He was also voted first team All-NBA ten times, and second team twice. He led the league in assists eight times and made the Hall of Fame. He had serious game for his era.

In the 60 years since he retired, the game evolved — building iteratively on what he did during his career — as did training techniques, skills development, strategy, medical science, etc. If Cousy was born in 2003 or 2004, he’d be a thoroughly modern player. He’d almost certainly have worked on that left hand, he’d be shooting threes, and he probably would have never touched cigarettes.

That’s the second part of the time travel fantasy conversation, by the way. The player being lifted as is from his time and dropped in another era, or the player being born and raised in that different era.

This is where my idea comes in. Instead of imagining what a Cousy might be like if he had some kind of time travel, let’s look at relative dominance. More simply: how did the individual perform in relation to the competition of his own era. We can then compare accomplishments and impact for players from different times.

An example: let’s compare John Wall and Cousy. The “time travel” conversation would surely have Wall on top. He was bigger, faster, and stronger than Cousy. While Wall’s shooting was suspect, he shot a higher percentage than Cousy. And, if you watch film, Wall possessed a multitude of skills that Cousy never even dreamed of.

Time travel Wall from 2016-17 to 1962-63, and he’s a freakish wrecking ball of a player.

But the accolades, awards and championships tell us that Cousy was better in the 50s and 60s than Wall was in the twenty-teens. Cousy was a Chris Paul-like figure in his era...if Paul had won MVP and been part of multiple championships. When it comes to Wall and Cousy, there’s really no comparison — Cousy’s relative dominance of his era was vastly superior to Wall’s.

This brings me back to the Era Translator, which was birthed by fiddling around with the numbers and realizing that even across eras, certain player types repeat. There are some new ones (like three-point shooting specialists) who came about as the game evolved, but patterns of production rhyme across time. The era translator accounts for pace by calculating an individual’s share of stats like points, rebounds and assists, and then applying that share to another era. Accounting for pace is critical when attempting to compare numbers across eras.

One thing the translator doesn’t tell us is what someone would have averaged if they played in an era different from their own. The way I look at the translated stats is that these are the kinds of numbers a player of similar stature would produce in a different era. In other words, it’s not that Chamberlain would average the numbers you see below for the most recent season, rather that these are kinds of numbers that someone playing today would have to produce to achieve a similar level of dominance over today’s competition.

Let’s start with translating some of the mythic heroes of yesteryear to 2022-23. See the sidebar for more info on the Era Translator.

Wilt Chamberlain — 50 & 25 Season

  • 1961-62 — 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 50.6% FG%
  • 2022-23 — 46.0 points, 15.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 54.8% FG%

Now, Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes per game in 1961-62. Basically, he played the whole game, every game, including overtime. If we knock his minutes down to the level of a high-minute modern player (say 38 minutes per game), it’s still 36 points and 12 rebounds per game. That’s basically Joel Embiid (33.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 54.8% FG%) plus some rebounds.

Oscar Robertson — Triple Double Season

  • 1961-62 — 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists
  • 2022-23 — 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 10.7 assists

Closest figure last season was probably Luka Doncic, though Robertson did a little more playmaking and a little less scoring.

Bill Russell — Mythic to Modern

  • 1961-62 — 18.9 points, 23.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 45.7% FG%
  • 2022-23 — 17.9 points, 13.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 51.3%

Add in the legendary defense,’s tough to find someone who did as much scoring, rebounding and playmaking as Russell did. Maybe if Rudy Gobert scored and passed too. My guess is the closest comp would be someone like Jaren Jackson Jr., if Jackson rebounded and passed more while fouling less. When I’ve translated other players back to Russell’s era, guys like Dwight Howard and Hakeem Olajuwon looked to have a similar kind of impact.

Kristaps Porzingis — Wizards to Mythic Era

  • 2022-23 — 23.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 49.8% FG%
  • 1961-62 — 24.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 43.8% FG%

Closest analog from back in the day was probably Wayne Embry, though Porzingis’s translated points come out higher.

Kyle Kuzma — Wizards to Mythic Era

  • 2022-23 — 21.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 44.8% FG%
  • 1961-62 — 22.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 39.4% FG%

The closest analogs from that era was probably Willie Naulls, a high-scoring but inefficient forward with the Knicks.

Let’s finish up with some Wizards/Bullets icon translations using what was (at least arguably) their best season with the franchise.

Wes Unseld — MVP and Rookie of the Year

  • 1968-69 — 13.8 points, 18.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists
  • 2022-23 — 13.6 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists

This was the season Unseld became just the second player in NBA history to win Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in the same season. The other guy to do it: Wilt Chamberlain. As a 6-7 center, he’d be an oddity in any era, and much of what he did best is defending in ways that didn’t show up in the box scores of the time (the league didn’t track steals or blocks at the time). Lower scoring bigs with high rebounding numbers and superb defense include players like Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela or maybe a younger version of Andre Drummond.

Elvin Hayes — The Scorer

  • 1974-75 — 23.0 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists
  • 2022-23 — 25.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists

I chose the 1974-75 season, but I would take arguments for 76-77 or 78-79 being just as good, if not a bit better. Hayes was consistently excellent in Washington, and he added overall defense, shot blocking and rebounding to the scoring. Modern analog: a better rebounding Lauri Markkanen or perhaps Julius Randle.

Walt Bellamy — Mythic to Modern

  • 1961-62 — 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 51.9% FG%
  • 2022-23 — 32.7 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 59.9%

Could you imagine a rookie entering the NBA and averaging 32, 12 and 3 nowadays? That’s the equivalent of what Bellamy did for the Chicago Packers (the first iteration of this franchise). Bellamy was an All-Star each of his first four seasons, though he never made an All-NBA team — tough competition with Chamberlain and Russell soaking up most of the attention. Closest modern analogs: Giannis or Embiid.

Gus Johnson — Aging Enforcer

  • 1970-71 — 18.2 points, 17.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists
  • 2022-23 — 18.5 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists

There were 3-4 seasons with an argument as Johnson’s best, but I thought 70-71 was the peak. That was his age 32 season. Interesting that while he was a physical enforcer type, he averaged just 2.8 fouls per game in this season. At a listed 6-6, he might end up a much better scoring and rebounding version of PJ Tucker.

Phil Chenier — Legendary Broadcaster

  • 1974-75 — 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.8 blocks
  • 2022-23 — 23.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks

This was Chenier’s one All-NBA season. He was a wing scorer without a ton of playmaking. A modern player with a similar profile: Tyrese Maxey from the 76ers.

If I get time, I’ll take some requests for translations in the comments.